The NHL season is already in full-swing, so while it may be a bit late to jump on the "predictions" train, there's still plenty of unknowns that will drastically affect how the rest of the year will play out, and ultimately affect the final outcome of the standings in both conferences.
We've seen teams get off to surprisingly hot starts (the New York Islanders) and others struggle off the starting blocks (the Colorado Avalanche). We've seen perennial juggernauts assert their dominance (the Anaheim Ducks) and we've seen other elite teams slip and slide their way to the middle of the pack (Boston Bruins), leaving their fans anxiously hoping they will find a way to turn things around sooner rather than later.
Predictions are always a crapshoot - the games are not played on paper, they are played out on the ice, where what should happen usually takes a backseat to what no one expected would happen. One cannot take into account off years, breakout performances or simply unexplainable outcomes that leave even the most respected of pundits scratching their heads years later.
These predictions would not differ much even if they had been done two weeks ago, and while there is no doubt that having a 10-game base to ponder upon helps, the future remains murky. Can the Nashville Predators continue to compete in the vaunted Western conference? Is Ottawa's goaltending enough to keep them afloat in the strong Atlantic Division? Will a team like Calgary or Columbus go on a tear and shock the hockey world by earning a playoff birth?
Those questions will take months to answer, but if one thing is for certain, its that nothing ever goes the way it should. Some teams will play over their heads and find a way to squeeze into a wild card position, while others will fall flat on their faces and miss out on the postseason dance for Lord Stanley's Holy Grail.
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18 Eastern Conference
17 Atlantic Division: 1. Montreal Canadiens
The Habs are off to their best start since 1961, and while it's hard to deny that they've been fairly lucky in certain games they've played this season, there's no doubting they are a legitimate threat to come out of the Eastern Conference. Montreal has soared out to an 8-2-1 start on the backs of Tomas Plekanec and Carey Price. Once everyone is on their game and things start clicking the way they should, Michel Therrien's squad will be a formidable opponent on any given night, and it will ultimately propel them past their arch-nemesis to top their division.
16 Atlantic Division: 2. Boston Bruins
There must not be a day that goes by that Bruins fans (and management, for that matter) wish they hadn't been a little more patient with Tyler Seguin. The Bruins are already stacked as it is, and while Reilly Smith has been a solid addition, it doesn't match what Seguin is doing in Dallas. That being said, the Bruins still boast one of the best rosters in the entire league and can rely on Tuukka Rask between the pipes. The injury to Zdeno Chara is ominous, and overall the Bruins might slip from their perch as the Beasts of the East, but they'll find themselves in a playoff spot with no issues come April.
15 Atlantic Division: 3. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning have one of the scarier rosters in the East (mostly thanks to the presence of Steven Stamkos), and they're hoping to rebound from a disappointing playoff performance last season. Stamkos has one of the best supporting casts he's ever had and once Jonathan Drouin gets his footing in the NHL...it's a scary thought. Ben Bishop will provide stability once again in nets, and Victor Hedman proved before his injury that he is finally living up to his billing as a top flight NHL defenseman.
14 Metropolitan Division: 1. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins will win this division by virtue of being the lesser of several evils. That is not to say this division is "soft" by any means (hard to say that with the Stanley Cup finalist in the same division), but it's not far-fetched to suggest that the Pens would have a harder time finishing first in the Atlantic. That being said, Crosby and Malkin look in top form, and while they've lost some big names on the back-end, young prospects like Olli Maatta are ready to take on a bigger responsibility on defense. Barring a Marc-Andre Fleury collapse, the Pens will win this division without much difficulty.
13 Metropolitan Division: 2. New York Rangers
The Rangers are coming off a spectacular playoff run, but lost several key names in the offseason. They're already dealing with a couple of injuries, but overall the talent is enough to justify the Rangers holding a spot near the top of the Metropolitan division. Rick Nash is looking like the Rick Nash of old, and once Henrik Lundqvist gets his game together, the Rangers will be a formidable opponent to deal with on a nightly basis. Chris Kreider will be a key cog of the Rangers offense as well, as it's time for him to break out as a point-producer.
12 Metropolitan Division: 3. New York Islanders
I'm sure some of you will think I have only slotted the Islanders in here because of their hot start and while it helps justify the pick, I've had a good feeling about the Islanders since last year. John Tavares knee injury was essentially the reason why they didn't push for a playoff spot last year, and the additions of Johnny Boychuk and Jaroslav Halak (who's struggled, admittedly) will ultimately pay off in the form of a playoff spot (and would set up an all-New-York first round match-up in this scenario).
11 Wild Card: 1. Detroit Red Wings
It's hard to fathom the Red Wings "squeaking" into a playoff spot again, but they just might be able to. While they'll be the team no one wants to face come the postseason, the Wings will have their troubles during the regular season. It's safe to say that Jimmy Howard is the fourth best goaltender in his own division, so the Wings are already lagging at the most important position. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will be called upon to provide offense, but it'll be up to younger players like Gustav Nyqvist to continue to progress and help propel the Wings into a wild-card spot.
10 Wild Card: 2. Washington Capitals
The final wild-card pick was a difficult one: Philadelphia's defense (and goaltending, on some nights), is putrid, the Devils won't score enough, and the Blue Jackets are already too banged up to keep up now, let alone come crunch time later on in the season. Meanwhile, Washington looks to be as steady as they've been in years. Once Barry Trotz fully integrates his system, the Caps will be a tough team to score against while also boasting one of the league's top scoring threats in Alexander Ovechkin.
9 Western Conference
8 Central Division: 1. Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks are as safe a pick to win their division as there is in the entire league. Even in such a tough division, the Hawks are a cut above the rest. Toews and Kane are entering the prime of their careers, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa make up the best "supporting cast" in the league, and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook round out a formidable roster. Once Corey Crawford gets back, the Hawks will be set in goal, too - but his backups have certainly been up to the task so far.
7 Central Division: 2. St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues are one of those teams that will either finally get over the hump or massively underperform. The Blues have assembled one of the deepest rosters in the entire league, but have always seemed to run into major obstacles come playoff-time. That won't be an issue during the regular season, for their sake. Even with David Backes and T.J. Oshie dealing with injuries at the moment, there is plenty of firepower to go around. Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester are as good a defensive trio as you'll find, and if Vladimir Tarasenko continues to emerge as a top-flight sniper, the Blues might even challenge the Hawks for top spot in the division.
6 Central Division: 3. Dallas Stars
The addition of Jason Spezza might not seem like enough to propel the Stars into a top three spot in their division, but there's no denying Spezza's impact so far. Not only does he add a ton of firepower to the roster, but at the same time, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn continue to improve with each passing season. Seguin is looking like a potential Art Ross or Hart trophy candidate, at least for now. Combine that with a solid cast of complimentary players and an above average goalie in Kari Lehtonen, and the Stars should be able to lock down #3 in the Central.
5 Pacific Division: 1. Los Angeles Kings
Many worry about the Stanley Cup hangover when it comes to the defending champions, but the Kings have looked just fine so far, flying out of the gates and racking up 14 points, which is good for second in the West. "That 70's Line" has been spectacular, and with Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick locking down the back end, the Kings will prove to be too powerful to surpass for the rest of the Pacific division - even though the Kings might prefer going into the playoffs as an underdog, based on past experience.
4 Pacific Division: 2. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks added Ryan Kesler in the offseason to strengthen the center position, and it's worked out well so far. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have been dominant, as usual, and while there were questions after John Gibson's slow start in goal, the duo of Frederik Andersen and Gibson are already making Ducks fans forget about Jonas Hiller. If the Ducks stay healthy, they'll challenge for the top spot in the division. However, the lack of experience in nets and on the back-end raises some concern that there may be rough patches during the regular season.
3 Pacific Division: 3. San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks went through a tumultuous offseason riddled with questions of who would stay and who would go. Ultimately, almost everyone ended up sticking around, save for the departure of Dan Boyle via free agency. The Sharks are still a deep team with a boatload of talent, but many wonder if they'll be able to stay afloat after the hit their confidence took last spring. Surely, there's enough talent to at least get them to the playoffs, so they are an easy pick here at #3 in the Pacific. The questions will resurface once the second season starts, though.
2 Wild Card: 1. Minnesota Wild
Minnesota could very easily sneak into one of the top 3 playoff spots in the Central should Dallas run into any issues. The Wild have been surprisingly strong thus far, thanks to the strong play of Darcy Kuemper in goal. The Wild offense has been solid, and once Thomas Vanek starts scoring goals they'll see their offense truly achieve its full potential. Minnesota will have to avoid slipping down the standings during the season, however, as Vancouver and Colorado will no doubt be nipping at their heels all season long.
1 Wild Card: 2. Nashville Predators
After a disappointing season, the Predators look to be back to where they were a few seasons ago - with a lot more offensive punch. Pekka Rinne is back and will be the key to any success the Preds have, but the additions of Mike Ribiero, Derek Roy, and most importantly, James Neal, mean the Preds will finally be able to rely on true offensive threats as opposed to hoping to squeak out 1-0 or 2-1 results. Shea Weber and Roman Josi are minute-eating machines and will anchor the Preds back-end as well as they always have.
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